Perhaps one of the most interesting questions, at least for me, when I think about and talk about movies, has to do with cult films. It’s a simple question, and one on the surface that appears to have a relatively simple answer. But, as is so often the case with interesting and deceptively simplistic questions, the further into trying to answer it you get, the more convoluted and unclear it becomes.
What is a cult film?
It’s a question I find so interesting I actually created an entire podcast about it (and you should check it out. We just talk about movies some may or may not consider “cult” and try to figure out just what it is about them that earns them their following). But even then, with over 100 episodes to our name – and over three whole listeners (eat your heart our Mark Kermode) – we’re still barely scratching the surface of what actually defines something as cult movie.
The simple answer – the one that sort of explains it but doesn’t really – is that a cult film is any film that has some sort o loyal, but small, fan-base. Cult cinema sort of conjures up images, for me at least, of midnight screenings, people in costumes, deep cut references and the like. But this answer begins to fall apart the minute you start picking at it.
A small but loyal fan-base you say? Well, then surely that constitutes Star Wars, right? I mean, perhaps not at the beginning, way back in 1977 when it broke to box office, but certainly in my childhood, when I was outcast as a “nerd” because I loved those movies with the spacer wizards and the weird Muppet frog thing.
Sure, Star Wars has burst into the mainstream in more recent years, but pre-the prequels and the video game era the only people reading the Extended Universe, buying the toys and going to conventions were those weirdos who signed their religion as Jedi on the open register.
When I say cult cinema, for me, conjures up the image of midnight screenings, people in costumes, deep cut references and the like, then… well, you don’t get more than that then when you come to Stars Wars – except for, maybe, Star Trek… and Star Trek brings with it a whole other set of problems.
Is it possible for a movie to be both mainstream and have a cult fan-base? Surely Star Wars would suggest it is. Likewise, one might argue, does the MCU. I mean, I know the answer is no, and I know Star Wars, Star Trek and the MCU are all way too big as properties to ever really be considered cult, but it’s hard to deny that the fan-bases of each of those properties share an awful lot in common with the people who sit through midnight screenings of Rocky Horror.
The push in mainstream cinema to go for more genre style properties, suggests that perhaps the whole notion of a “cult” film is no longer as simple as it once was. Before the 80s, perhaps, cult films were the underdogs; those movies only the niche fans loved. But the rise of the internet, and our connectivity with others who share similar interests, has blown the whole thing wide open.
No longer are you part of a small community of fellow cult fans, who only talk at screenings or whatever. Now you’re part of a Facebook group with hundreds, if not thousands of members, shit-posting about that movie you love.
Furthermore, it’s actually become a strange sort of badge of honour for a movie to be considered a “cult” film. Fight Club, for example, leaned into its poor reviews and bad reception upon release with its marketing campaign, practically advertising itself as the anti-mainstream. As a result, the movie is one of the most beloved films of all time, with lots and lots of people citing it among their favourites. Is it a “cult” film?
The kind of rabid, intricately picking apart of each scene, every related piece of media, obsessively discussing small details and looking for hidden meanings that we see in the modern fandom of most mainstream blockbusters these days is the sort of thing 20, even maybe 10, years ago we would have expected only from cult fandom.
And the studios who produce these properties now actually encourage this kind of thing, as well. And this only further leans into the whole “badge of honour” aspect of being a cult film. Movies these days seem to sort of hope for the cult status. I mean, look at Cats! You expect me to believe anyone, and I mean anyone, hasn’t looked at the absolute shit-show that movie has managed to present us at the box office and gone, “Okay, let’s give it to the indie theatres, start making Funko Pops, and the lean the f**k into this whole midnight movie thing”?
Of course, they have! Would they have liked a billion dollars at the box office? Yes. Are they going to run with the so-bad-its-good angle anyway? F**k yes.
Whether or not you actually agree with me on any of these points doesn’t really matter. Ultimately, I think, a cult film is only defined by the individual groups that make up its audience. To a great many people, their love of Star Wars or Marvel is so massive – so “cultish” – that for them they are 100% cult films. Who am I to tell them I’m wrong?
In the modern world the whole idea of cult has become muddied and confused. Distributors specialise in weird Grindhouse movies that only a small group of people are ever going to buy, while the studios scramble over filling their movies with so many fan-referencing Easter eggs that fan culture can’t help but become cult in their own way. Cult films have changes. We may think of The Big Lebowski or Re-Animator when we think of cult films, but in the modern world we perhaps need to reevaluate exactly what the term means.